Deen the Book Man at the Good Market
For this week’s ‘Notes on Resilience’, we speak to Hafleen Dawood, a secondhand and rare book seller based in Wellawatte, better known as Deen the Book Man. In-between receiving customers at his Saturday stall at the Good Market, he paused to speak about how the pandemic affected book sales and how he adjusted to meet reader requirements.
Hafleen runs a secondhand bookshop which specializes in hard-to-find books, a stall at the Good Market, a book delivery service and lending library. His website (https://www.deenthebookman.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started?
In 1978, I joined Peter’s Bookshop in Maradana. I wanted to go abroad and I wanted to learn some English. I was interested about the English language so I would always read the titles of the book. When I read the titles, I would remember the names. In a short time, I learned about the books and when anyone came to the bookshop I would be able to assist them. I worked there for about six – eight years. After that, another shop in Maradana became vacant and the owner leased the shop to me until the owner’s children were old enough to take over.
By the end of five years, when I handed over the first shop I also had another shop along the same row and this continued for a while. Later, I wanted to move out from there and take this business along a different way. We moved to Slave Island in 2006 and had a shop on the church premises. I was there for 10 years and then we were asked to move. Now I have a shop in Wellawatte and we also began a stall at Good Market in 2014 in Diyatha Uyana, moving to Racecourse afterwards. We also lend books – the customer keeps the price of the book as a deposit. We have made a website now to do online business. We are in the process of rearranging the books on it and we hope to make it the best bookseller’s website in Sri Lanka.
I am at the Good Market today after five – six weeks. Before I come, I call and inform my regular customers who have reached out for old books. Every week I try to have something different for different readers. For novel readers, I bring different novels. For collectors, I bring different collectibles. Half of my business is rare books and out of print books. When I collect old books, sometimes I know which books certain customers would be interested in and call and inform them.
Normally I hand over the shop to my son, Samin, and he does it very well. He handles the Colombo book deliveries and the website
How did COVID-19 affect the work you do? How did you have to adapt?
When COVID hit, there was a section of moneyed people who had leisure time and time to read books. At that time when readers wanted books and collectors wanted collectibles, we were unable to give them because only food and medicine were essential items.
During the first lockdown, we were allowed to deliver and post books. But the second time, we weren’t allowed. We were in a curfew area and when we tried to get a curfew pass, the Grama Niladhari said that books and educational stationery were not included as an essential service. But after the curfew was lifted, we started to deliver books that were ordered earlier.
Day by day, the readers have increased. There was a period till around the early 2000s where the numbers of readers had dropped because of the war and the introduction of TV. Today, I have had around 10 customers up to now. I hope little by little it will increase.
When I sell books, it is 50% to make money and 50% as a service to give readers what they want. And this is tied to our life. If we stay at home, we will quickly become older than our age. We work to lower our age. I am 63 now. I have one assistant, he is a friend of mine. Both of us share the work and speak to the customers. When people come, I suggest books to read.
Even with reading, there are different kinds of people. During this year’s book fair, we noticed that many Colombo people and well-to-do people did not come. I got to know this from the collection of books that I took to the stalls – certain specialized books which appeal to certain readers’ tastes were not sold.
It’s been a challenging year. What are you most thankful for this year?
Well, we say we are thankful to God.
What are the biggest lessons you are taking away from the year?
So many but I can’t say everything. I think one lesson is that all of us have to save money for the unexpected.
What are your plans for 2021?
I hope to turn the business into a rare and hard to find book business. Mostly it is now secondhand books but this will change in a few ways.
I intend to hold my first vintage, hard-to-find and rare books sale next year in the first week of February. It will be a sale with first edition and rare books and I’ve been busy arranging books for this. The last lockdown gave me a chance to rearrange all the first editions separately, from what I had collected over 15 years ago. Some were moth-eaten books but I have never thrown it out if it is a rare or out of print one. I know people want the material in this – you won’t find these books in leading book shops. I spend my spare time repairing and restoring these books.
We will be adding more books to the website so that people can order and purchase from there. I am also making my library in Wellawatte. In about three – four months, people will be able to come to see old books.